As 2014 starts winding down and winter is fast approaching, Congress is increasing its workload. Immediately after the mid-term elections, Congress will enter the lame duck period—potentially the most productive few weeks of the two-year session.
During the lame duck, Congress will look to tackle a number of issues, such as tax and appropriations bills that were just too hot to touch before the elections. Several of these bills could bring big benefits to the volunteer and combination fire service.
In December, Congress is expected to consider legislation known as the Tax-Extenders Bill to reauthorize expiring provisions of the tax code. The IAFC and VCOS members have been working hard to encourage members of Congress to include the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act (VRIPRA) in any tax-extender bill. VRIPRA would prevent any property-based benefits and up to $600 in other benefits provided to volunteers from being considered taxable income.
Previous tax regulations allowed fire departments to offer property-based incentives and up to $360 per year in other incentives before being considered taxable income. However, these protections for incentives ended in 2010. Reestablishing these tax protections for volunteer incentives will be crucial to allowing fire departments to have the tools they need to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel.
During the lame duck, Congress will also need to pass legislation to fund the federal government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015.
The Department of Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act provides funding to a variety of programs, including the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grant program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the VFA program, which provides funding opportunities to volunteer and combination departments protecting communities of less than 10,000 individuals.
These grants are an important way for underfunded departments to purchase new equipment and provide training for their volunteers. Since each VFA grant is generally smaller, more departments are able to receive funding and benefit from the VFA program.
For Fiscal Year 2015, the Administration requested $13 million for the VFA Grant, which is a slight cut from its Fiscal Year 2014 funding level of $13.025 million. The House and proposed Senate language is recommending $13 million for the VFA program in FY 2015.
While the IAFC would like to see VFA return to its FY 2010 funding level, the IAFC supports the Administration, House and Senate proposals of $13 million for FY 2015.
The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, also known as the THUD Bill, will be another funding bill for Congress to consider before recessing in 2015.
The Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness (HMEP) grant is one of the programs funded under the THUD bill. The IAFC is asking Congress to provide $28.3 million for the HMEP grant and to support the Senate recommendation for the HMEP grant to support blended training, which has components of both web-based and in-person training.
Combining web-based training with in-person training will be far more practical for volunteer and combination departments whose members may be unable to leave work to attend in-person hazmat training. Blended training also can reduce the cost of training sessions and allow more emergency responders to participate in the important lessons.
The IAFC is also supporting Senate-proposed language that would provide nearly $5 million for specifically web-based hazmat training.
Additionally, the IAFC is also urging Congress to fund the FIRE and SAFER Grants at $340 million each in the FY 2015 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act. Congress funded these programs at $340 million each in FY 2014, and the House and Senate are recommending these funding levels for FY 2015 too.
The IAFC also is asking Congress to extend the waivers to the SAFER requirements for an additional year. The FIRE and SAFER Grants represent an important source of funding for volunteer and combination fire departments to procure apparatus, purchase equipment and hold recruitment and retention activities.
The IAFC is also recommending that Congress continue to fund the U.S. Fire Administration at $44 million, which was the FY 2014 funding level and is the funding level in H.R. 4903 and S. 2534.
As Congress begins to end its 113th session, now is a great time to contact your members of Congress and educate them about these issues and your fire department's needs. Review the resources available on the IAFC Government Relations webpage for various letter templates, talking points and issue briefs.
Congress might be destined to be a lame duck after November 4, but it could prove to be a very busy time of the year for the fire service.